What Makes a Strong Candidate
For detailed information on specific health care professions and how to prepare for them, please visit our section on Planning for Specific Health Care Professions.
Preparing to attend health care programs goes well beyond taking the “right” classes and doing well on the entry exams. Certainly, an excellent applicant will have a strong overall grade point average in the pre-requisite coursework, as well as competitive test scores.
But beyond these measures, a strong applicant will have a well-rounded set of interests; have a passion for the sciences and field of medicine; have a healthy sense of self; quality volunteer experience (remember quantity does not always equal quality), strong letters of recommendation and a compelling personal statement. As you prepare for this journey we expect that you are doing a lot of reading, self-reflection, and self-assessment to determine if health care is the correct path for you.
As you go into the preparation process, for both two-year and four-year programs, you may find it helpful to keep a journal of your experiences and record how you feel about them. What are you learning and how will you use it? Are you finding fulfillment in your courses and activities or are you feeling drained and overwhelmed? It's important to look at your feelings as you go through the process. Why? Because when you do apply to programs they will want you to have the ability to analyze and reflect on your experiences. They want to be sure you are committed to health care and they will want to know what sparks that commitment. And you want to be as sure as you can that you’re making a good choice.
Find out what it takes to be a strong medical school candidate. Listen to these focus group sessions presented by Dr. Carol Teitz, Associate Dean of Admissions of the UW School of Medicine.
A number of the professions have articulated competencies that are important to their practice and which they are looking for in the admission screening process. For example:
- Core Competencies for Entering Medical Students by the AAMC
- What A Career in Dentistry Demands, by the ADEA
- U of Washington School of Pharmacy Admission, Retention and Graduation Standards, on pages 18 and 19 of the Admissions Guide
- For Physical Therapy, looking at verbs in "The Role of a PT", by the American Physical Therapy Association
- From American Veterinary Medcial Association
Two-year plan preparing for an undergraduate (Bachelor degree) health professional program
Two years before
- View our pre-health information presentations.
- Start getting health care related experience.
- Sign up for Pre-Health Advising Blog to receive important updates and information.
- Meet with a pre-health adviser to plan your curriculum.
- Read the web pages for the program(s) that interest you. Learn about their mission, values, and learning goals.
- Look for opportunities to get involved in community service on or off campus.
- Get to know your professors.
This will help you to succeed academically and enrich your undergraduate education. Take a balanced courseload. You should start your science prerequisites, take general education coursework and take classes to help you to explore majors.It can feel intimidating to approach your faculty, which is another reason to give it a try! Visit during office hours and ask questions about the course you are taking. Look at your professor's webpage and ask about her or his background and research area. Ask for your professor's advice and maintain your relationship after your course ends.
- Take a balanced courseload. You should start your science prerequisites, take general education coursework and take classes that help provide context to your interests in health care (social sciences, ethnic and cultural studies, communication, writing).
- Explore programs at other schools. Since many programs are highly competitive, it is helpful to apply widely. If there are prerequisites that you need for other schools, begin to plan on how to fit them into your curriculum.
One year before
- Pay close attention to the program's website. Valuable application information and hints will be included there.
- Attend any application workshop, information session, or open house that is offered.
- Ask for letter(s) of recommendation early. Give your recommender a brief goal statement and resume.
- Begin to think about back-up majors that you would enjoy studying if you are not a successful applicant the first time you apply.
Four-year plan preparing for a graduate health professional program
Four years before
- View our pre-health information presentations.
- Start getting health care related experience. Many programs require a minimum number of hours volunteering in a health care specific setting. In addition observing professionals of the field you plan to enter (this is called shadowing) is also considered important or may be required.
- Look for opportunities to get involved in community service on- or off-campus. This does not need to be in a health care setting. Students are encouraged to find an issue or organization or population they are personally interested in. The UW Office of Experiential Learning and Diversity in Mary Gates Hall 171 is a good resource to help you find something; for example on their blog.
- Sign up for the Pre-Health Advising Blog to receive important updates and information.
- Start exploring majors that are of interest to you.
Health care graduate programs do not give preference to any majors. You can be equally successful choosing a science or non-science major and you should choose a major that you will do well in and enjoy.
- Attend a student organization meeting.
Actively participating in student groups can be an invaluable experience. The student groups not only offer services that prehealth students find helpful, such as hosting health related panels, informational interviews and group volunteering events, but they also provide a community of students who have similar interests and goals. By taking on an active role, students can also develop their leadership skills. To browse a directory of groups, visit the Registered Student Organization's website.
- Get to know your professors.
Getting to know your professors will help you to succeed academically and enrich your undergraduate education. In addition, letters of recommendation from both science and nonscience faculty play an important role in your application to graduate programs. It can feel intimidating to approach your faculty, which is another reason to give it a try! Visit during office hours and ask questions about the course you are taking. Look at your professor's webpage and ask about her or his background and research area. Ask for your professor's advice and maintain your relationship after your course ends.
- Take a balanced courseload.
You should start your science prerequisites, take general education coursework and take classes that help provide context to your interests in health care (social sciences, ethnic and cultural studies, communication, writing,). Also take courses that will help you to explore possible majors.
Three years before
- Continue to get health care experience.
If you have been at the same place for a long period of time, consider asking to advance your responsibilities. If you are no longer learning at your health care site, don't give up! Be proactive about finding an alternative opportunity to continue your learning.
- Continue your science prerequisites and complete remaining prerequisites for your major.
- Choose your major and declare if you are ready. Remember! Health care programs do not give preference to any major.
- Continue to get to know your professors.
- Participate in undergraduate research.
Most health care programs do not require that you have research experience; however, it can deepen your understanding of the health sciences. If you are interested in undergraduate research, the Undergraduate Research Program can help you to get started. You can also talk to departmental advisers and faculty about opportunities.
Two years before
- Attend application information sessions about writing your personal statement, interviewing, and completing the application.
- Attend presentations and fairs that will introduce you to specific schools.
- Research standardized test preparation options (ie: MCAT, DAT, PCAT, OAT or GRE). Organize your class notes to help you to study.
- Research schools. Take the time to consider what is important to you in a health program. Do research in books and online to find strong matches. You should contact the Admissions Offices of the schools with any questions that are not answered on their websites. Pay close attention to schools' prerequisites, residency requirements and special programs and deadlines.
- Procure letters of recommendation. The letter requirements of the programs vary, but many programs will require three faculty letters of recommendation. Be sure to give your letter writer a brief goal statement and a resume.
- Prepare for, register for and take the appropriate standardized test. Click on the test you need for more information:
- Medical School (Allopathic , Osteopathic, Naturopathic) — MCAT
- Dental School — DAT
- Pharmacy School (not all pharmacy schools require the PCAT) — PCAT
- Optometry School — OAT
- Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy or Veterinary School — GRE
- Order official transcripts from all schools attended for your use.
- Submit your primary application. You should submit your application early as many schools use a rolling admissions process.
- Medical School
- Dental School
- Pharmacy School
- Optometry School — Does not use common application
- Occupational Therapy — Does not use common application
- Physical Therapy
- Veterinary School
- Submit secondary applications, if applicable.
- Prepare for interviews, if applicable. This will include participating in a mock interview at the Career Center.
One year before
- Interview with interested programs, if applicable. Send thank you notes after any interview!
- Update schools with important information, including:
- Updated transcripts
- New and substantial health care experience
- Substantive research experience
- Continue to develop yourself as a strong applicant.
Assess your strengths and weaknesses as an applicant and work to improve any weak areas. This could include taking additional coursework in the sciences or non-sciences, developing relationships with faculty, participating in research, or getting quality health care experience.
- Plan for a gap year.
Many qualified applicants are not admitted to a health program during their first application. It is important that you continually assess yourself as an applicant and consider alternative plans. Use this additional year to continue to explore your motivation, and address any weaknesses in your application. If you must reapply, programs will be comparing your applications to see that you have been thoughtful and proactive with your time. There is no right way to spend a gap year; it will depend on your motivations and interests.
How to apply
Applying to health care programs is generally a year-long process that will require you to do many tasks simultaneously. While you are preparing to take the appropriate entry exams, you will also need to write your personal statement, research schools and obtain letters of recommendation. By the time you start contacting programs, you should have narrowed your choice to at least ten schools, taken the entry exam, obtained all recommendation letters, and written the final copy of your personal statement. Our online workshop Health Professions Application: Choosing Schools discusses the process of selection and criteria you may want to consider. While the examples given are primarily taken from medical schools, the process and criteria apply to most any health professional field.
Writing the personal statement
You have taken the prerequisite courses, volunteered and done community service. Writers for your letters of recommendation are identified, and they have agreed to give you glowing reviews. Now comes the "hard" part; writing the personal statement. For many people crafting an effective personal statement is difficult for two reasons; you have to write about yourself, and there are generally no definite guidelines for its structure.
The instructions for the personal statement vary depending upon the profession and the intended school. These instructions should definitely be followed carefully, but they are not a specific set of "do's and don'ts" on what to include in the statement. Its content is up to you. The personal statement is your first opportunity to showcase yourself, using your own words, to the selection committee, and as such you need to devote a significant amount of time to its production. Here are some general suggestions that can make writing the personal statement easier.
- Give yourself plenty of time! You should plan on writing several drafts before attaining perfection, and assuming you are applying to several different programs, you will probably want several different versions, each tailored to a specific program.
- Make sure that the final product is in your "voice." While you will want many people to read the drafts, and make suggestions, if the end result is not written in your style, then it is not giving the readers an accurate view as you. While selection committees will expect a well-written essay, they do not expect "Shakespeare."
- As mentioned previously, have several people read your versions. Ask family members, relatives, friends; the people who know you well. They can help ensure that the statement is accurate in its description of you, both as a person, and a potential health care professional. But, unless you know someone who is an expert in the rules of grammar and style, you also need to have it proofread by such a person. There are some writing centers on campus that will read personal statements; when all else fails, pay to have a professional proofread it for you.
- Make sure that you are giving the reader a more in-depth view of your experiences. Don't just list everything that you have done in preparing for your chosen field; explain how your volunteer experience has altered or enhanced your view of the profession; how community service has given you new insights into people or circumstances. Focus on a few important examples. You will have the chance to list other activities and accomplishments elsewhere in the application.
- While you do not want to "oversell" yourself, do not be reluctant to talk about significant accomplishments, and why you feel you are well-suited to a career in your chosen profession. The personal statement needs to make you stand out as an applicant; after reading it the selection committee should have a clear sense of your motivation towards your chosen health care, and feel enthusiastic about you as a candidate.
If your personal statement is going to be typed or pasted into an on-line application service, you will need to proofread it carefully before submitting it to make sure that it contains no grammatical, spelling, or formatting errors. Compare it to your stored version to make sure it is complete and error free.
Letters of recommendation
Letters of recommendation are almost always required when applying to health care majors and professional programs. Like all other components of a good application package, getting letters of recommendation requires purposeful planning. Below are some suggestions for making this important component of your application a success.
- Learn the specific requirements for letters of recommendation for each program to which you will be applying. While almost every program wants them, the number and type of letter(s) requested vary considerably from program to program. Some programs want four letters, others only take two. One application might require two academic-based letters, and one from a professional in your chosen area of study; another might two academic, one from a professional in your chosen field, and one from an employer. You get the idea. So, find out early both the quantity and types of letters required by your prospective program(s).
- For the academic letters of recommendation, find out who can write a letter. Some schools will accept letters from graduate teaching assistants (TAs), others will only take letters from faculty members. If a program will accept a letter from either TAs or faculty, then you have a decision to make. While I would generally recommend that applicants get letters from faculty whenever possible, a good letter from a teaching assistant who knows you well, and can write meaningfully about you, is better than one from a faculty member who does not know you well, and their evaluation of your academic potential is restricted to "...the student attended my lectures, did well on exams, and earned a 3.2 for the class." Remember, find a writer who can really write about you as a student and a person; someone who can write about the qualities you possess that are going to be valued in a health care program.
- Identify potential letter writers early, and ask them if they will be willing to write a letter, even if the application process is still two years away. Try to schedule an appointment with a prospective writer, and treat that meeting like a job interview, which may mean wearing appropriate clothes. Bring in a cover letter discussing why you have chosen a particular health-care field; also bring along an updated resume. Try to give the writer as much information about you as possible. Remember, start identifying potential letter writers early; most professors are unwilling to write “last minute” letters, or if they do write one, it is likely to be not the stellar letter you need.
- For for each school that interests you, create a folder containing its list of pre-requisite courses, as well as application deadlines and requirements.
- Register for the NY Times online, and other free internet news resources. Read up on articles related to health care issues.
- Read the New York Times Tuesday Science Supplement. There is almost always at least one article that is health related.
- Do research on the schools you wish to attend. Know their concentrations, strengths, weak spots, etc. Be able to demonstrate why a particular school is a good fit for your plans.
- For non-traditional (older) students: check out oldpremeds.org.
- Listen to NPR at least once a week.
- Push your comfort level by familiarizing yourself with people not like you.
- Begin a hobby. Classes from the Experimental College can be helpful with this. This is a good way to reduce stress.
- Don't automatically believe everything you hear or read — check it out with an adviser.
- Present yourself professionally when you are doing volunteer work.
- Give your personal statement and resume to people you ask for letters of recommendation.
- Keep a journal of your health care experiences.
- Keep your sense of humor. Laughter helps keep you healthy.
- Maintain a journal of your activites so you have something to refresh your memory when it comes time to write your personal statement.